Until I read Joseph Braude's New Republic essay on the Internet and the Middle East, I wasn't aware that Bashar Assad is quite a Web surfer. He gets much of the credit, in fact, for building up Syria's (highly policed) Internet service. So, who knows, he may one day be able to get a job at a London cybercafe, if there are no openings at Specsavers. (That's assuming he ever gets out of Damascus in one piece. The excellent Reuel Marc Gerecht has more here on the prospects for the boy-king and the rest of the region's rulers.)

As for Braude, he isn't proclaiming a full-blown blogging revolution just yet - at the moment only about five per cent of the Arab population as a whole has access to the virtual world . But he does see the beginnings of a breakdown in the machinery of repression:

For over a thousand years, governance in the Arab world has been marked by an uneasy truce between state and society--namely, the state policed the public sphere but cut society some slack in private. This bifurcation of space was brilliantly delineated by the seventh-century caliph Umar, who instructed his citizens, "Show us the best of your character, while God knows your secrets well." ...In Saudi Arabian cities today, the ubiquitous guardians of public virtue--who whack women's ankles that are exposed in public and haul away teens for having alcohol on their breath--enjoy jurisdiction in public places but shy away from inspecting people's homes. As a result, even though it is illegal to own a satellite dish, Saudis are the biggest consumers of satellite television in the region. You can have your MTV; just close the door to your house.

The growing phenomenon of Arabic-language blogging makes this awkward truce between citizens and their governments untenable.... In some Arab countries, like Egypt, because of the dispersed way Internet connections are distributed, it is virtually impossible to curb the continued distribution of this content short of shutting down the country's fixed communications infrastructure altogether.

And some of those countries' bloggers seem to know it. One blog went so far as to post a poem in Egyptian vernacular called "We'd like you dead, o President" alongside a photo of Hosni Mubarak on February 11. The first of thirteen posted comments reads, in formal Arabic: "We in the secret police have determined from which site this threat against the person of his Excellency the President originated. We will take the necessary measures to punish whoever carries this out. Wait for us."

Rather than cow the bloggers concerned, who perhaps believed the note to be a fake, this seems only to have egged them on. The comment that follows, posted in English, reads, "Oh look, I'm shaking in my little space boots." The comment after that begins with the well-known cyber-acronym "lol" (short for "laughing out loud").

|||Clive|||http://clivedavis.blogspot.com/2005/03/in-ether-until-i-read-joseph-braudes.html|||3/08/2005 01:40:00 pm|||||||||